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Theater Review:

"ROPE," Sense of Urgency Productions at The Viaduct

BY LUCIA MAURO

Patrick Hamilton’s philosophical tease of a thriller, "Rope," can be a devilish challenge to stage despite its compact structure. A drawing-room drama with a more antiseptic "Titus Andronicus" twist, it joins together a certain degree of bloated pondering about human invincibility and the commercially viable joy of dangling the audience in a realm of nail-gnawing suspense.

Sense of Urgency Productions’ staging of this Leopold and Loeb-inspired play at The Viaduct is committed to the work’s stylish 1920s allure. But director Tim Good does not have a firm grip on the darker, intellectually-tinged aspects of the drama or those moments of harrowing doubt and potentially horrifying discovery.

Much of the play’s nuance is lost in portrayals more intent on delivering lines and "acting" paranoid than absorbing the confounding paradoxes of the two lead characters. Even the supporting players threaten to become eccentric, chattering pieces of scenery instead of real individuals engaged in a macabre joke that will forever alter their self-respect and outlook on humanity.

"Rope" is an engrossing, if not overly didactic, examination of power at its most brutally self-absorbed. Two educated upper-class young men (Brandon and Granillo), whom the playwright suggests are lovers, decide to test their theory that the ability to take a life transforms one into a super-human, even a god. They strangle an innocent school friend and stuff his corpse into a trunk on top of which they later serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres. To push the envelope into nihilistic absurdity, they invite the dead man’s father and other friends to unsuspectingly feast in a room reeking with pointless death.

The arrival of jaded writer, Rupert Cadell, sets the murder-mystery in motion as these men’s longtime friend dissects this passionless and motiveless killing aimed, ironically, at making the murderers feel more alive. Hamilton uses this abominable act to explore the differences in perception of small- and large-scale killing, particularly when it applies to war. He also veers into the more abstract territory of the deceptively harmless notion of theory put into devastating practice.

Ray Kasper as the slick and smug instigator Brandon, and Derek Gaspar as his reluctant accomplice Granillo, are physically appropriate for their roles. But their scene work suffers from an over-abundance of telegraphing, which saps the production of those necessary aching self-doubts. Their rapidly rising guilt appears as obvious as the murderer’s pulsating madness in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart." Gaspar especially falls to pieces way too soon. Yet, interestingly, Gaspar more sincerely conveys Granillo’s stultifying sense of regret. Kasper, on the other hand, is too conscious of delivering his lines in a snooty upper-class accent. His reading, therefore, grows distractedly stilted and wobbly.

Unfortunately, the party guests – most notably Jenn SavaRyan’s exotic Leila Arden (in a ghastly, excessive rag-like costume) and Cathleen Sperling’s nerdy, non-sequitur-suffering Alice Debenham – cross the line from earnest eccentricity to farcical parody. In fact, the overall party scene suffers from awkward blocking and under-rehearsed pacing.

Ian Harris is well cast as the Oscar Wilde-like Rupert Cadell. His lugubrious sarcasm moves the production in a more daring and colorful realm of unapologetic truth. But, as the play progresses, Harris’ world-weariness does not convincingly vary its dimensions – transitions crucial to illustrating the devastating gravity of the play’s themes.

Robert Dorjath’s and Steve D’Angelo’s precise and polished scenic design, including chandeliers that hang over the audience’s heads to subtly bring them into the action, add a methodical elegance to the production -- a tone that needs to be more forcefully mirrored in the performances.

A Sense of Urgency Productions’ staging of "Rope" runs through May 5 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $12-$15. Call 312-400-9298 or log onto www.senseofurgency.org.

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